Youth Review: 11-12

Having moved house in the summer of 1996, it was a relief to now live somewhere with more space to exist in. First bonus was that we had gone from a house with no garden to one with a garden. There was room to kick a football around, and even enough room to have a sort of cricket pitch, i.e. just the middle part of a giant cricket pitch where the batter and the bowler stand. This would be the scene of endless games of cricket with my dad. Well, they would end eventually as I normally hit the tennis ball we played with into the neighbour’s garden with a baseball-like shot. It’s just not cricket.

However, there was also another bonus which I decided not to take. With us now having an extra room, there was an option for me to have my own bedroom. It was only a small room though, so I was not keen. In fact, there was something about the room which made me feel very uneasy. At night, to distract myself, I would scratch the leaf patterns that were part of the wallpaper off the wall, in a rather odd and ever expanding game of how much could I destroy it. At the time the thought never occured to me that what I was doing was actually rather bad, and eventually I was told off for it… only when it was discovered that I’d managed to scratch off a considerable amount.

In the end I decided to go back into the room with my brother, and back to the bunk beds. I just didn’t seem to be ready to sleep on my own yet… it was too lonely. I liked to talk to him before I went to sleep, normally a load of nonsense involving made-up games. At the time I was very keen on the game Theme Hospital, having played a demo and being desperate to get my hands on the real thing. This resulted in me pretending to be a doctor in my own Theme Hospital world with my brother. I think he got bored of it in the end as he’d often get annoyed when I’d suddenly start singing one of the tunes from the game.

The summer soon vanished, and I had to accept that I had a new school to go to. Now living a few miles away, the convenient option to get there every morning was by the school’s own bus service. Well, it wasn’t a bus, but a coach. So the morning of starting school arrived, and I got dressed into my new uniform: a rather unfetching maroon blazer put the top-hat on my woes of school uniform shopping just a week before. And now I had to wear it. Bugger. Not only did I have to wear it in school, but wearing it on the walk to the bus stop. I looked a right pillock, but the fact that I had to leave earlier than others in my neighbourhood to go to school meant that I was spared the embarrassment of bumping into anyone I recognised, or even didn’t recognise.

I was escorted to the bus stop by my dad, where several other people were waiting. I recognised a couple of them, and one of them was a semi-annoying person from my primary school who’d left the year before me. I was amused that this person who liked to pretend he was “hard” was now in the silly uniform too. That helped relieve some of the foolishness I felt wearing this uniform.

The coach soon arrived, and I said a sad goodbye to my dad. The coach was packed to the rafters, and it was not good to have to sit next to people who were now much older than me. In fact, it was only at this point, with the school also having sixth formers in it, it dawned on me that I had a long way to go. I was intrigued by the gulf between the youngest juniors in Year 3 and the oldest in Year 6, but now being in Year 7, and not aware of the joys of adolescence ahead of me, I was shocked at how much difference there was between me and even those just two years above me, never mind those in sixth form.

15 minutes later, I was in school. I had a new teacher, a new class, and a new way of operating. The first teacher I saw was actually just going to be my form teacher, and I was also going to have a multitude of other teachers for many separate subjects. This was a whole new, exciting world. But the timetable also included the predictable nightmares of PE and Games (I was already dreading them), but also the subject of Drama. I wondered what that could be.

My new form group was weird. I had got used to being the tallest in my school when I was in Year 6. Now I was shockingly small compared to a couple of others, and there were several girls who seemed to tower over me. Like I said, I knew nothing about the difference puberty makes, so this was decidedly strange to me.

The other problem was that I retreated into my shell. Faced with this new, daunting challenge of getting to know an enormous number of people, I decided that there was only one thing for it, and that was to give up trying to find out who everyone was. I barely spoke to anyone. I had no friends, although there were a couple of people who were looking promising. Yet I just didn’t have the courage to intervene in the existing friendship circles that were already being drawn up. The biggest barrier was the fact that a lot of these people knew each other from primary school already, having gone to the private feeder school for my new private high school.

The first few days passed by in a blaze of silence. I worked hard, but if a teacher ever asked me if I knew the answer, more often than not I would actually say nothing at all. I couldn’t even bring myself to say “I don’t know”, for the shame that would bring to me. It was all in my head, of course, but that didn’t make the trauma any less difficult. I would later find out from parent’s evening that my teacher’s thought I was deliberately ignoring them, when I was just helpless to say anything. I find this very odd when I look back on it now, because I’m not that introverted now, although I am sure this has affected me as I am not a confident person at all.

The second week, and the dreaded PE arrived on the Monday. It was only going to last 40 minutes, which was a relief, and we did now have separate lessons and changing rooms from the girls. This helped enormously, but I still had to get changed in front of everyone else. I was already beginning to work out who I would hate, and one of them was a very spiteful, vindicative gossip-monger. This particular boy was immensely irritating, and yet had managed to ingratiate himself with the taller and stronger boys in my class. I anticipated future problems in these changing rooms.

PE passed off without problems, and I quite enjoyed basketball, but to discover that we were going to do gymnastics later in the year was something I didn’t want to hear. And in Games, which was going to happen the next day, I found out that the school plays: rugby, rugby, more rugby… and then a sliver of cricket in the summer. Rugby. The terror went through my veins. And I thought football was too aggressive for me.

Games the next day was as terrifying as expected. We had to walk down to the games field, and there there was a pavillion in which we had to get changed. The rugby kit we wore was as garish as the blazer, with yellow and maroon hoops. It also had a reinforced stomach area, and I was told that this was because you often get pulled around by that part in rugby. Whether this was true or not didn’t matter – it put the fear of God into me.

I don’t think the games lesson went that badly in the end. It was full of brutish aggression, but it can be very easy to pretend you’re in the action when actually you’re not. And if, by some miracle, the ball came to me it would quickly be offloaded, probably back to the person it came from. Sometimes the teacher would shout daft things like “nice one-two!” obviously not realising how crap I was yet.

But the ordeal was soon over. I was still not remotely settled in my new school, but it was beginning to become obvious what lessons were going to be good and which weren’t. I loved the sciences, even though only one of the teachers for biology was good. Geography was also shaping up well, but again the teacher was a miserable sod. English and history were with my form teacher, who was simply the stereotypical Irishman… gentle, kind, and slightly dippy. He was good value, but the lessons were particularly dull. IT should also have been good, but the teacher was such an idiot that I despised the lesson. I wanted to crack on, because I knew everything he was talking about… but that got me a telling off. Nasty man. Art was my most hated subject, despite the teacher being as laid-back as possible. Spanish suddenly became a trauma, and the teacher was almost assassin like in his behaviour. He was nice, but then he would suddenly fire a dart of sarcastic snark that would leave you utterly humiliated if you made a mistake.

Drama was not as bad as I thought it’d be, but it was a little too “unmanly” for the boys. Acting out random things, like reacting to a washing machine breaking down, was a problem, especially with an audience. It was always good to see the back of that lesson, but it was not particularly challenging.

RE and Maths were dull as hell, and CDT was interesting, but not being the most dextrous of people I found the practical aspects of building wooden cars, etc. a little beyond me, so most of the time I had to get the teacher to help me.

So the lessons were shaping up OK. But in terms of the social aspect of school – arguably far more important – things were not proceeding very well. I tended to spend most play times (or “break times” as they were now called, since “play time” is also unmanly) on my own, sometimes generating random thoughts in my head about who I’d like to be friends with and what I should say to them, as well as spending a lot of energy watching where the vindicative bastard I described earlier was, and avoiding him.

Of course, private schools are well known for being little more than slave drivers. This impression was confirmed by the fact that break time was a whole 10 minutes long, more like 5 minutes by the time you had returned to class, put your books away and went out to the yard. Lunch time was a better 50 minutes, but in later years you would have some classes that would stretch into lunchtime, leaving you just 25 minutes.

Happily, things began to take a turn for the better. By the third week of school, someone who had been on holiday finally joined our tutor group. It just so happened that me and him were near each other as we walked down to Games one day, and he started talking to me. I was shocked at this sudden engagement, having barely spoken to anyone that day… but it was a relief. I realised he was in a similar situation to me… he was also from a humble background, and suddenly we had a common interest of laughing at those who were very posh and clearly got into the school through connections and large amounts of cash changing hands. At last I realised why I’d found things so difficult… so many of these kids lived very differently from the way I did. It just so happened that my new friend was like me in many ways. It was the beginning of one of my best friendships in my life.

Once I’d established this friendship, things became easier. I now had someone to sit next to in classes, without having to look like a berk because I was sitting on my own or next to the unpopular girls (it becomes obvious to all in schools who the popular and who the unpopular girls are). This gave me some confidence, and I soon established a couple more friends who were similar to me and my new friend. It became obvious to me that I had entered a friendship circle who were not remotely popular, but it was beginning to not matter so much. I started rediscovering the individualism that I had begun to cultivate in primary school… and so settled down. But I still didn’t like answering questions. What’s worse was the fact that I had got so used to not answering questions in class that when I teacher would ask me, I would often know the answer and would not want to say it, so sat there and looked stupid. I was afraid of marking myself out as being clever, because to be a clever boy in secondary school is signing your own death warrant. So much for the individualism.

So school started to take shape for me. Exams before Christmas came and went, and it turned out that I was the 5th best in the class. Meanwhile, life took a rather interesting turn for me. One day I decided to look at my science textbook in greater detail. Normally we only used the earlier pages in it for science, as we still had a long way to go until the end. But curiosity got the better of me, and I looked deep into the biology section, where I discovered several interesting pages about puberty and sex education. Now, I already had a rather good idea of what sex was at this age, because it’s a common subject on school yards. So the pages on reproduction were not particularly new to me, although it did fill in many of the gaps. But the pages on adolescence were utterly fascinating to me. I had no idea of what was ahead. I had just assumed that I would carry on growing up like I always had. I didn’t think the process was going to rapidly accelerate.

By 1997 now, this was later reinforced by my teachers in a, rather embarrassing for all concerned, personal relations day. This involved taking home a booklet to my parents inside an envelope, and I had no idea of the contents of it. The booklet contained all the ins and outs (pun very much intended) of reproduction and puberty, and so when my parents read it they decided it was time to talk about the “birds and the bees”. Realising what was to come, I decided that I didn’t want to, and so replied with “I already know.” I can only assume this was a relief to them, as the conversation soon ended. In the end I managed to get hold of the booklet when no one was in the house, and I was quite surprised at just how graphic it was. The day itself in school, which fell on a Tuesday and so cancelling Games (hooray!), was mildly amusing, if only to watch the teachers struggling to explain how wonderful sex is and how it should be respected. Then came the line of how God had given us this wonderful way of “making a baby” from the head of the lower years, a strict authoritarian who got on with none of us. The thought of this evil woman reproducing sent a shudder down everyone’s spine. It also made me raise an eyebrow about God, something which I had never really thought about…

The spring term was the best, since it had no exams at the end of it. I can’t recall anything happening in it very notable, but in terms of my personal life I finally took a decision that I’ve never looked back from: I became a vegetarian. My mum wasn’t that impressed, because, of course, it would be her who would have to suffer my new found fussy eating. But I just couldn’t bear to eat meat any more. I didn’t really eat that much meat anyway, but the endless health scares, starting with mad cow disease, meant that I just couldn’t trust it. Plus, as all kids start to get as they grow older, they develop a conscience about things beyond their own small circle of family and friends. I just didn’t think it was morally right to kill things that have been alive to eat them. I would never be able to kill an animal myself, so why should I eat one that someone else has killed for me? They have as much right to exist as I do. Nope. That was it. Vegetarianism set in, something I have never regretted.

I began the summer term knowing that there would then be more exams in June. The ominous drift towards them set in, and the workload became very high. I’ve not yet mentioned the fact that homework in this school was three pieces every night, with four on Friday. That was bad enough, but I carried on with the good habit of getting it all done as soon as I got home. This now took nearly two hours, and I wasn’t getting back until 4:15pm. The chances of me now having a social life were zero, especially as once again I now lived nowhere near my friends. So the computer still figured highly, and I managed to secure Theme Hospital by doing lots of jobs around the house and getting paid for them. I didn’t care… it just passed the time and I enjoyed it. Maybe I did miss out on some crucial aspects of socialising, though.

But around the changing rooms spread fear. The Vindictive Shit had discovered that he had a power over everyone by using his brutish aides to his advantage. He would select, allegedly at random, someone to receive a wedgie. I can’t emphasise enough how horrible this vicious child was. I’m sure that the wedgies wouldn’t have happened otherwise, but this horrible bastard would stir the shit so thick, calling people gay, etc., that I would go so far as to call it psychological bullying. Certain kids were persistent targets. I believe I was lucky, as I was still taller than most of them and it wasn’t very beneficial to pick on me. But now it took the form of physical attacks, and I witnessed several people, but none of my friends, get wedgied. It was not a pretty sight, but what could I do about it? All I could do was to be the first into the changing room and get changed immediately. The wedgie-brute would attack when you were at your weakest, i.e. when you had just taken off your trousers to put on your PE kit shorts, so that was the first part of getting changed if you wanted to avoid being the target. I learned this quickly, and was never caught out.

One day, however, the Vindictive One started some rumours that I was about to be wedgied. He announced that nearly everyone had taken their punishment, except me. So I would be attacked. I couldn’t help it, so I launched a vicious verbal assault on him, telling him that if there would be any wedgie of me I would not hesitate in grassing them all up. This was the lowest anyone could get… to be a grass is to be cast into shame. But I didn’t care any more. I was sick of living in this fear. It worked out that I played the card well, and the evil child’s threats were withdrawn, and I got changed in peace. It made me unpopular, but I didn’t care as I was not exactly Mr Popular amongst that group anyway. Meanwhile my friends gained a bit of respect for me for confronting the one we all hated. A nice resolution, but it definitely stuck in my mind for years after. I was still terrified of getting changed. There was just too much danger.

The only other event I remember as the year drew to a close was when I was with a friend of mine, and we had both been asked by a teacher to collect something from another part of the school and bring it back to class for our biology lesson. Me and him ran very quickly, including a sprint down a set of stairs. Then I realised that my friend next to me was falling. We were half way down the stairs, and he had just lost his footing. We were going so fast that he was going to take a very serious tumble.

My arm automatically reached out, and I grabbed his shoulder. I saved him. He would surely have suffered serious injury if he’d fallen, but I managed to get enough on him to stop him, and his next step was only slightly awkward. He’s never let me forget since then, with hyperbole, that I “saved his life”. It was an amazing feeling at the time… and I hadn’t really thought about it. Just a reflex to stop him falling, and so I felt like I shouldn’t get any praise. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

The year went by. Art homework was a terrible bore, and I found it extremely difficult. I got consistently terrible marks in it… which was not good for my confidence, especially as a bad mark would be followed with a barracking from the art teachers. I hated it, and couldn’t wait for the time I could drop Art as a subject, but that was some years away.

Exams were soon in the picture, and so the dullness of revision began to set in. But they went by without much of a hitch, and I got another set of really good results, putting me fifth in the class once more. The year ended in much better circumstances than it started, and the beauty of private school was that I had a longer summer holiday than everyone else. More time for Theme Hospital.

So Year 7 was over with. My new school was beginning to shape up well, but the traumas of first year were extremely harsh at times. I began to get a little frustrated that all those things I read about suddenly growing up quickly had not happened to me yet. I wanted to be the tallest in my year again, just to make certain of me never being threatened again by mindless acts of violence from my peers. But I was about 10cm short of them. That was not going to be made up any time soon. I could only pray for a miracle over the summer holidays.

I was now 12. One short of teenagehood. I wondered if that would make any difference. I’d heard about how nasty and aggressive teenagers are, and I knew I was nothing like that. I was expecting a transformation in myself next year. Year 8 was going to be fun…

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